Blinken leaves Middle East with ceasefire intact but aid uncertain

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a press conference in the Jordanian capital Amman on May 26, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

AMMAN (NYTIMES) - A fragile ceasefire remains intact, but the work to rebuild after the short but deadly war between Israel and Hamas has just begun, the top American diplomat said on Wednesday (May 26) at the close of a Middle East trip intended to keep simmering tensions from erupting anew.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was returning to Washington from the brief but urgent visit with new promises to help fund a massive humanitarian and reconstruction effort in the Gaza Strip, pockets of which were decimated during 11 days of hostilities between Hamas, the militant group that controls the area, and Israel.

Following meetings with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan - two Arab neighbours of Israel that have influence with Palestinians in Israel and in the occupied West Bank - Mr Blinken said he would reach out to other nations in the region "to ensure we all contribute to recovery, stability, and the reduction of tensions".

He said Egypt had offered to contribute US$500 million (S$660 million) to rebuild Gaza, and noted Jordan's "vital role" in working with the Palestinian Authority - Hamas' political rival - in the West Bank.

"We see the ceasefire not as an end, but as a beginning - something to build on," Mr Blinken told journalists in Amman, shortly after meeting King Abdullah II of Jordan.

But the path forward could stretch indefinitely without a clear resolution.

Past efforts to rebuild Gaza, and lift its two million residents from dire poverty and instability, have failed. Although the United States is shepherding the latest donor drive, and has so far contributed US$360 million in humanitarian and development aid to Palestinians, control of such aid is part of a long-running power struggle between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

United States President Joe Biden has said reconstruction must be in partnership with the authority, not Hamas.

And Israeli leaders have said, tepidly, that they will resist contributing to an aid package unless the Palestinian Authority stops cooperating with an International Criminal Court investigation of war crimes in territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Following a Wednesday morning discussion with Mr Blinken in Jerusalem, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel noted that enduring relations with the United States "allow us also to agree not to agree, from time to time".

Before the ceasefire took hold last Friday, Israeli bombing and shelling killed more than 230 people in Gaza, while rockets by Hamas and other groups killed 12 people in Israel.

In his first visit to the Middle East as secretary of state, Mr Blinken had to carefully navigate the unsavoury aspects of partnering with unpredictable allies or other leaders with whom the United States is often at odds.

Even as he was commending Egypt for persuading Hamas to accept the ceasefire, Mr Blinken said he pursued "a lengthy exchange" with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi over human rights abuses committed on his watch.

In Jordan, Mr Blinken struck a more genial tone, assuring King Abdullah of support after several uneasy years during which Washington's relationship with Amman largely was put on a back burner, overshadowed by former president Donald Trump's emphatic embrace of Israel and its prime minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We'll have a lot of work to do together," Mr Blinken told journalists later.

The kingdom is the custodian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam and a flash point for the recent unrest between Arabs and Jewish residents of Israel.

In their meeting, King Abdullah warned Mr Blinken over what he described as Israeli provocations at the mosque and against Palestinian families in East Jerusalem who have been threatened with eviction, according to a statement released by the royal court.

He also urged the United States to revitalise a years-dormant effort to negotiate a lasting peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians, noting Washington's traditionally "pivotal role" in such efforts.

Mr Blinken has played down expectations that new peace talks could be on the horizon and, over two days of diplomatic talks, he generally steered clear of predicting that the ceasefire would hold.

Instead, he insisted on focusing on supplying emergency aid to Gaza - where Israeli bombardment forced at least 77,000 people from their homes, and cut off water and electricity to hundreds of thousands more - as a first, if halting, step to a broader stability.

"That's where you try to build hope as well as opportunity," Mr Blinken told journalists. "And that, both in a literal sense when it comes to infrastructure and in a broader sense, is the foundation, upon which maybe we can build something even better.

"It's going to take some time to see the effect, to see the impact," he said. "But it is moving forward."

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